Playing a video game today is almost exactly the same as it was in 1980. You use a controller—be it a gamepad, keyboard, or mouse—which is connected to a box that plugs into a display. It’s a system that has stood the test of time.
But Palmer Luckey changed all of that. His once-tiny company called Oculus threw a pebble into the calm gaming pond in late 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign for a new virtual-reality headset that he claimed would revolutionize the way we all play video games. That ripple effect only magnified in March 2014 when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was buying the company for $2 billion. One year later, it’s still unclear exactly what role virtual reality will play for the majority of gamers, but I think I have a pretty good idea.
A success before launch
Unlike most Kickstarter projects, which aim to provide a consumer-oriented product upon being successfully funded, Luckey’s plan for his Oculus Rift head-mounted display was to seed development kits to content creators. Meanwhile, his development team would continue to work on a consumer version of the hardware itself. The project was funded nearly 10 times over, reaching a total of $2.4 million. The crowdfunding success was enough to get people interested, and shortly thereafter there seemed to be an Oculus Rift development unit at every gaming convention, wowing everyone—myself included—with a virtual-reality experience that actually delivered on the concept.
Even gamers who have never seen one in person have been drawn in by the unbelievable hype, and that’s something you rarely see for a device that is expected to retail for hundreds of dollars. The first consumer version of the Rift is slated to hit retail sometime in 2015, and Oculus has stated that now, after two developer versions, the next Rift that will appear for sale will be the long-awaited consumer model.
It might be more realistic, but that doesn’t make it more fun.
I have both the original Oculus Rift development kit as well as the Rift DK2, and I’ve put untold hours into my own virtual-reality adventures. The game selection, as it currently stands, is sparse. That’s to be expected, since there’s no business-minded reason to support the device until you can buy one at the store, but there’s plenty to play. Racing games, flight simulations, horror games, and virtually every other genre is represented in some form, and it’s not hard to see the direction the technology is headed.
Just a novelty?
Actually using the headset to play a game is something that can’t be easily described. It’s virtual reality, and if you’ve never experienced it, there’s only so much a written explanation can do to give you an idea of what it’s like. When you turn your head, you look somewhere else in the game world. Not being able to actually see your own arms and hands is the only thing keeping you from reaching out and touching the 3D objects presented before you. It’s surreal, and it’s just plain cool.
The first time I put the Rift on, I was at a convention, and I immediately fell head over heels. I loved feeling like I was inside the game—almost like I was living out some cheesy ’80s sci-fi movie—and I wanted more. That feeling faded quite fast for me, and aside from the day my second-generation Rift arrived, there’s rarely been a time when I desired to revisit my past VR adventures or embark on new ones.
The fact of the matter is that there’s no real reason to use virtual reality for the vast majority of game experiences. It adds nothing to most games, and in many cases it takes away from the game’s ability to direct your gaze to give you clues and guidance. Giving the player the ability to look around at will is only reasonable if there’s nothing important going on in the digital world itself.
If you’re playing a racing game, you need to turn your head to look in your virtual rear-view mirror. If you’re playing a horror game, you have to look over your shoulder to see if something is sneaking up from behind. If you’re riding a digital roller coaster, you have to close your eyes to keep your breakfast from making a surprise appearance on your lap. It might be more realistic, but that doesn’t make it more fun.
The fact of the matter is that there’s no real reason to use virtual reality for the vast majority of game experiences.
That brings us to the heart of the Oculus Rift problem: It’s not necessarily any better than a nice big HDTV or PC monitor. Racing around hairpin turns might feel a tad more visceral, and peeking around a corner in a horror game might make your heart skip one extra beat, but it doesn’t make bad games good, and it doesn’t make great games much better. It’s simply a new way to experience them, and that makes it largely a novelty.
There’s also a massive trade-off if you want to play a game using a head-mounted display rather than on a more traditional screen. To put it simply, you can’t do anything other than play the game while you have the headset on. If your phone chirps with a text message notification, you can’t check it. If your throat becomes parched, you can’t take a sip of soda. When you have a massive headset on your face and a pair of earphones strapped to your skull, you are transported into the game world, and that’s that.
Your ears and forehead get sweaty; your neck, while not sore, definitely feels different with a couple of pounds of electronics burdening it. Even something a simple as a bathroom break becomes a chore of removing and then re-equipping a whole bunch of straps and bands.
Before I owned a Rift, I’d see a game and wonder how cool it would be to play in virtual reality. Today, I see a game and wonder if it’s worth the hassle to drag my Rift out of the closet and connect a half dozen cords just to try to capture that magic I felt the first time I wore it.
A bright future
So why do people seem so enamored with Oculus Rift? The hardware itself is very impressive, and as I stated before, it most definitely delivers on its promise to transform the way you play a game—especially in bite-sized chunks. However, every time you hear someone rave about their first experience with the Rift or any other VR headset display, they are drawing from, at most, five to 10 minutes of play time.
Even something a simple as a bathroom break becomes a chore.
If you see it at E3 or PAX, you’re going to love your brief encounter because it’s so easy to be impressed by something completely new and fresh. Having one—or in my case two—sitting right here in my office and being able to feel what it’s like after an hour or more with a Rift attached to my face, I can tell you it’s much, much different.
Will the Oculus Rift be the future of gaming? I don’t believe it will.
It won’t push developers to abandon traditional games in favor of VR-exclusive experiences, and if you’re happy with the way your games are played today, you have no reason to see the Rift as a threat to what you hold dear.
What the Rift will be is a fantastic accessory for those who want to experience their games in a new way. But like motion controls, camera systems, and all the other novelties that have made their way into and out of gamer hands, nothing will ever truly replace a controller connected to a box connected to a display. That doesn’t make it a waste of money or a bad way to play, but it does make it simply an option, rather than a necessity.
Illustration by Max Fleishman | Photo by Mike Wehner